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Network World - If your business isn't already investing in 3D printing, it should be. And if you have a 3D printer, you should buy another one, recommends Gartner research director Pete Basiliere.
Gartner recently released a report authored by Basiliere predicting that enterprise-class 3D printers will be available for less than $2,000 by 2016. The key factors driving the price down are the technology's potential for slashing costs and innovation in 3D printing hardware and software, Basiliere says.
But while many businesses have already adopted the technology, Basiliere says many more are misinformed on the technology's value in the enterprise.
"There are people in the enterprise who are already using additive manufacturing technologies and 3D printing technologies, it's just that the growth potential is huge because there is a very large number of enterprises that have not tried having a 3D printer on-site right now," he says.
Misconception #1: Access to 3D printers should be limited to a select few
Even those that have already begun development on their 3D printing projects would be wise to buy another printer, if only to offer their employees access to the technology, Basiliere says. While discussing the technology with a client, Basiliere found that the company had already purchased two 3D printers. The problem was that the devices could only be used for the 3D printing projects the company had in development. That prevented the employees, namely the innovators Basiliere called "makers," who aren't working on those projects from learning how to work with 3D printing technology.
"They're playing with these things. Unlike the traditional stereotype of an inventor - a lone soul working away in a garage - makers typically are more open source, collaborative, and willing to experiment and share," Basiliere says. "So the universal makers are driving consumers, but they're also present in the enterprise. So that's why the advice to my client I was talking about is that you've got to bring these devices in and encourage people within the organization to try it out."
Misconception #2: 3D printing is an overhyped, consumer fad
A major deterrent to 3D printing adoption in the enterprise is a misrepresentation of the technology in mainstream media, Basiliere says. Most coverage of 3D printing technology focuses on innovative designs of consumer products or controversial projects, such as Defense Distributed's 3D printed gun initiative, leading many line-of-business executives to write off the hype as unrealistic, Basiliere says. Once more businesses are made aware of the many current uses of 3D printing, they'll be more likely to begin work with the technology sooner.
"I think one of the very first things is we need to make sure the CIO and others within the enterprise understand that the hype is on the consumer side, and it's a real viable technology for the enterprise and it's already been demonstrated in the enterprise," Basiliere says. "It's used in everything from aerospace and automotive to dental and medical applications. It's real, it's today."
Misconception #3: 3D printing requires lots of training
Another common misconception is that deploying the technology will entail a significant amount of time setting up and training employees on how to use it. In reality, the businesses that will benefit the most from 3D technology are manufacturers, and as such their employees are already familiar with the computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D design software used to design products for 3D printing.
"They already have people who are using these tools on a daily basis to design products, to tweak manufacturing lines, and so you already have some staff [and] you already have some software that's in place," Basiliere says. "So the next step is to invest in a machine, a printer, that they can now experiment with so they can learn what it takes to convert that concept, that 3D drawing, into a viable part."
Businesses will also find that the hardware, at least that which meets their needs for experimentation, is relatively inexpensive. Basiliere says many managers in manufacturing operations or research departments are allowed to make purchases within a certain price range, often limited at $10,000, without requiring permission from senior-level executives or directors.
"They don't have to go through a return-on-investment analysis of the capital expenditure. They have the authority as a manager to make that purchase," he says. "And so, with that in mind, a departmental manager, whether it's manufacturing operations manager or research laboratory or someone that's working in the marketing organization doing product development, all those people likely have authority to buy these devices because they're at a price point that makes it possible."
At this point, with a declining price and a wide range of use cases, Basiliere says the discussion regarding 3D printing investments in manufacturing businesses should come down to one question.
"The question they have to ask themselves is 'do we want to invest in this and have it on-site, or do we want to engage a service bureau to have the parts made for us?'" he says. "That's how far along we are, at least for entry-level stuff. Given the price, the technology is sufficiently developed, and they ought to be investing in it today."
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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